26 January 2015

Jury Selection and the Death Penalty

In class, at least some of my classes, we talked about the jury selection process taking place in Colorado where a person is being charged with shooting and killing several people in a movie theater. The case received an enormous amount of media attention, requiring a huge jury pool to be formed and jury selection process that could take weeks if not months. On the other side of the country the infamous Boston Marathon bombers is about to be tried, and there too jury selection will be tricky business. Yet this time one's views on the death penalty will also come into play. Should it? The AP has an interesting article that addresses this question.

21 January 2015

Language Matters

Or maybe not. From a legal perspective it most certainly does, but news outlets misuse legal English often. Case in point: a recent headline regarding an appeal of three lower court rulings read "Gay marriage bans in three southern states on trial at U.S. appeals court." Did you get that? "ON TRIAL".

Students in all of my courses should understanding why the use of the word trial is inappropriate here. If you don't, go back and review the meaning of a trial.

09 January 2015

Supreme Court asked to decide what "accompanying" means

Students in all three of my courses this semester have been or will soon be exposed to American concepts of statutory. The U.S. Supreme Court recently also had to tackle these concepts in a case dealing with what the word "accompanying" means. According to the New York Times:
After a botched bank robbery in 2008 in North Carolina, Larry Whitfield entered the home of a 79-year-old woman, telling her he needed a place to hide. He directed the woman, who was upset and crying, to move with him from her living room to another room some nine feet away.
Those few steps exposed Mr. Whitfield to prosecution under a federal law that calls for a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence when a criminal “forces any person to accompany him” during a bank robbery or while fleeing.

They also gave rise to a lively Supreme Court argument on Tuesday, one largely concerned with the meaning of the word “accompany.”
Read the rest of the article to see some of the questions the Justices asked as they struggled to find  meaning for this commonly used word.

07 January 2015

Going on Senior Status

Because the U.S. Constitution gives federal court judges lifetime appointments, and because implicitly this means Congress cannot set a mandatory retirement age for federal court judges, some judges work well beyond the normal retirement age. However, many of these judges do not work full-time, rather they go on "senior status." A recent Boston Globe article explains:
The senior status arrangement, enjoyed by some 500 federal judges around the country, allows older judges to go into semiretirement while mentoring the fresher faces on the bench and helping to clear the court’s cases. 
Federal judges at all three levels can take advantage of this status, however, when a Supreme Court Justice retires, they may only serve as lower court judges under their senior status. Once the judge takes senior status, s/he effectively goes into retirement allowing the President to appoint a new judge, with the consent of the Senate, of course.

18 December 2014

$100K for Swearing at the Cops!

Anyone who has bothered to take a look at some of my older postings will know that a favorite topic of mine is getting arrested for swearing in public. It is well established that free speech rights under the U.S. Constitution protect even vulgar speech like swearing. As a recent article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution points out in an article about an Atlanta woman who was arrested for swearing at the police:
“Ms. Barnes’ comments to the police may have been offensive, but no one in the United States of America should be chased down and arrested for their free speech,” said lawyer Cynthia Counts, who represented Barnes in her civil and criminal litigation. “The officers argued that it was a bad neighborhood and you shouldn’t disrespect the police because it could create issues,” she added.
Counts noted federal courts had overuled such reasoning after 1918 sedition laws made “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” about the U.S. government, flag or armed forces — or that caused people to view government institutions with contempt — a felony.
These are losers for cities and counties. In this instance, Cobb County settled out of court with this potty mouth for $100,000!! Hopefully, in the future Cobb County will train its police officers to ignore offensive speech directed at them.

11 December 2014

Getting a Hearing Before the Supreme Court: Only for Elites?

This week Reuters published a special report about the lawyers who get their cases heard before the U.S. Supreme Court. Their conclusion: if you want to access the Supreme Court you had better hire one of the 66 lawyers who seem to repeatedly be granted access to the Court. Part one of the report is entitled "A cadre of well-connected attorneys has honed the art of getting the Supreme Court to take up cases - and business is capitalizing on their expertise," which should give you an idea of the point the report is trying to make. The report is rather long but will give students a very good understanding of the process of having a case heard before America's highest court.

09 December 2014

The Power to Declare War

When was the last time the United States formally declared war on another country?

Students in my American Law courses (at least the ones who have already completed the Introduction Course) know the answer to this, and understand that the U.S. Constitution is a bit confusing when it comes to the question of when the President can send the military oversees to engage in battle.

Article I of the Constitution clearly give the Congress the power to declare war, however the President is Commander-in-Chief of the military and charged with defending the interests of the country. Custom plays an enormous role in this question, and arguably it has become custom to allow the President to commit troops oversees without a formal declaration of war, as this recent post on the National Constitution Center's blog clearly illustrates. 

28 November 2014

California Governor Criticized for Judical Appointments

California's Governor Jerry Brown has now appointed three judges to the California Supreme Court, and as this editorial at SFGate notes, none of them have judicial experience. The writer of the editorial thinks that's a problem. Read the rest of it to find out why.

24 November 2014

Divided Government and the Appointment of Supreme Court Justices

By now, students in all three of my courses are familiar with how vacancies on the United States Supreme Court are filled. And those of my students who have been paying attention to developments in the United States realize that Republicans will soon be taking control of the United States Senate, the body charged with approving the President's nominees to the Supreme Court. Lyle Denniston has an interesting post on the National Constitution Center website explaining who likely it would for a nominee of President Obama's to get through the hostile Senate.

22 November 2014

How Presidents Have Used Their Veto Power

While we have not expressly discussed the President's veto power in my courses this semester, this power does fit into the general discussion we have had concerning American government, and at least someone in one of my courses was curious enough about this power to ask whether the President can exercise this power for any reason, or only when he feels the bill he is being asked to sign violates the Constitution. I recently came across a short and informative blog post on the National Constitution Center's blog that anyone interested in the President's veto power should read.